One of the more respected and prolific filmmakers in modern cinema, director-producer Ridley Scott amassed a portfolio containing some of the most critically and commercially successful movies of all time. Emerging from the world of television commercial production, Scott was nearly 40 years old by the time he helmed his first feature "The Duellists" (1977). Its lackluster reception left audiences ill-prepared for the massive impact that came next with the classic science-fiction/horror film "Alien" (1979). Although a commercial disaster at the time, "Blade Runner" (1982) would later be regarded as one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made, while Scott's on-set behavior during production earned him a lasting reputation as an exceptionally stubborn and difficult director. The years that followed were marked by the ebb and flow of disappointment and triumph, as illustrated by efforts like "Legend" (1985), "Thelma & Louise" (1991), "White Squall" (1996) and "Gladiator" (2000). Remarkably, Scott moved into the next millennium with an even steadier output of work that included such highlights as "Black Hawk Down" (2001), "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), "American Gangster" (2007), the "Alien" prequel-of-sorts "Prometheus" (2012) and the Academy Award-nominated science fiction comedy-thriller "The Martian" (2015). Having settled into a more efficient and actor-friendly style of filmmaking during the second half of his career, Scott enjoyed the luxury of tackling themes of personal interest on film projects endowed with budgets less-proven directors could only dream of.
Born on Nov. 30, 1937 in South Shields, Northumberland, England, Scott showed aptitude for art and drawing early on, becoming obsessed with it by the time he was 11 or 12 years of age. His mother, Jean, who loved movies, exposed her son to the joys of cinema. Since the family moved around often, thanks to his father's service in the military, Scott attended some 10 odd schools by the time he was ready for university. When he reached 19 years old, however, Scott wanted to follow his father's footsteps and enter the military. But his dad, who served as a brigadier for the British Army during World War II, convinced Scott to go to art school instead. Scott attended West Hartlepool College of Art to study graphic design, then did likewise at the Royal College of Art. After leaving school, he worked at the British Broadcasting Company as a set designer. But what Scott really wanted to do was direct, so he cajoled the station to allow him to attend a director's course, opening the door for him to fulfill his true ambitions.
Scott was given the opportunity to direct a few episodes of television, including the long-running crime drama "Z Cars" (BBC, 1962-1978), but blew an interview for a job with BBC2 when he admitted to knowing nothing about Shakespeare. Then again, Scott was frustrated with earning a measly £75 per week anyway, so he left the BBC altogether and enter the advertising world, which he later dubbed his "film school." Scott quickly made a name for himself at a time when most commercial directors looked down on making advertisements. But Scott took it seriously, churning out hundreds of spots that were visually stunning and later imitated by other commercial directors; his ads for Hovis bread were long remembered in the U.K. for being some of the best ever made. In 1967, Scott formed his own company, Ridley Scott Associates, which remained a major force in the advertising world well after he started directing features, which he finally did when he was 39 years old. By that time, he was quite well off financially. The pull to make movies, however - something Scott had felt since he was eight years old - proved too hard to resist any longer.
In the mid-1970s, Scott began working with producer David Puttnam on several story ideas, in order to develop something for him to direct as his first feature. They eventually came up with "The Duellists" (1977), a glossy historical drama adapted from a Joseph Conrad story about two officers in Napoleon's army (Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel) who spend their off-hours challenging each other to bloody duels that result in 16 years of perpetual draws. Though well received at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, "The Duellists" was released in only seven theaters in the United States.
Determined not to be resigned making art house films, Scott became interested in directing science fiction, thanks in part to the success of "Star Wars" (1977). He was offered the job of directing "Alien" (1979) - perhaps the most imitated and influential sci-fi horror film ever made - which focused on a crew aboard a spaceship which is hunted by an alien predator after it attaches itself to one of their own when they respond to a distress signal on an mysterious vessel. Though shot low budget, Scott nonetheless managed to create a visually satisfying film that drew mainstream audiences in with tension-filled scenes inside dank crawlspaces and with the iconic violence of an alien creature popping out of a crew member's chest. Scott deftly kept the alien hidden - really an actor in a rubber suit due to budget restrictions - which sustained a sense of impending doom throughout the entire film. Also notable was Scott's use of a female hero in the form of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the ship's warrant officer, who winds up the only surviving member of the crew after she dispatches of the creature. Unheard of in cinema at the time, Scott's unconventional action heroine was groundbreaking and helped launch Weaver's career. Though "Alien" spawned three official sequels, video games and two crossover movies years later, Scott played no part in the successful franchise, beyond inspiring the consequent filmmakers.
Since "Alien" firmly established Scott's directing career, it was up to his next film, "Blade Runner" (1982), to validate it. While no one knew it at the time, it would go on to cement his legend. Ironically, the film that would become one of the most revered science fiction movies ever made, was poorly reviewed and a box office flop at the time of its release. The shoot itself was horrifying to many involved, especially the film's star, Harrison Ford, who maintained throughout his career that "Blade Runner" was the worst movie experience of his life. On screen, Ford played Rick Deckard, a down-and-out ex-detective brought out of retirement to hunt down and kill a group of human androids, or replicants, who have escaped a mining company and taken refuge in the dystopian world of Los Angeles, circa 2019. As he discovers disturbing secrets about Tyrell Corporation, the company that manufactures the replicants, Deckard finds himself falling in love with an android (Sean Young), but is unaware of her true nature. Behind the scenes, Scott caused considerable friction from day one, upsetting the production design crew with demands of drastically changing established sets, thanks to his commercial background.
What Scott ultimately did, however, was establish a distinct and timeless look that transcended technological impairments of the early-1980s, creating a stunning visual film that stood its ground even decades later. But the finished product - which many later hailed as being ahead of its time - paled in comparison to the nightmarish treatment Scott inflicted upon much of his crew. He also battled Warner Bros. over test screenings, which forced Scott to make changes he knew were wrong, but nonetheless accepted because of studio pressure. He first added an extensive voiceover to help people identify better with Ford's character and follow the plot more easily. Scott was then forced to change his enigmatic ending to something more positive and happy - namely Deckard and Rachel riding off into the sunset happily ever after. Though Scott immediately regretted the changes he was forced to make, he failed to put up much of a fight at the time. His only solace came much later in 1992 when he rereleased a director's cut that eliminated Ford's voiceover and replaced the Hollywood ending with the more obscure, thematic one that hinted that Deckard may indeed be a replicant himself.
Despite his creative triumph, Scott was under the gun to produce a hit after "Blade Runner" flopped. Unfortunately, his next effort, "Legend" (1985), was not the film to resurrect his stature. A glossy and beautiful fairy tale set in a mystical forest inhabited by magical unicorns, "Legend" suffered from an inept good vs. evil story, a wimpy male lead in the form of Tom Cruise, and a malevolent studio that cut a whopping 30 minutes from the final product, creating an incoherent movie that looked great, but failed to satisfy moviegoers. Scott went on to direct "Someone To Watch Over Me" (1987), a rather standard romantic thriller about a cop (Tom Berenger) who falls in love with a murder witness (Mimi Rogers) he is guarding against the mob. After that came and went without much consequence, Scott directed Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia in "Black Rain" (1989), a crime thriller about two New York City cops who struggle to find a killer whom they lost while escorting him back to Japan. Though not considered a critical hit by any stretch, "Black Rain" did well enough at the box office for Scott to avoid a deadly third flop in a row.
Returning to a convention that worked well for him in the past, Scott used the female hero - in this case two female anti-heroes - in "Thelma and Louise" (1991), a landmark film remembered more for two strong leads and feminist themes, than for who directed it. In this seminal revisionist action thriller, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis starred as two small town gals who go on the run after killing a rapist, only to meet their fate on their own terms; not on those of the sympathetic police officer (Harvey Keitel) giving chase. "Thelma and Louise" was especially noted for its unconventional ending, where the two women drive off the edge of the Grand Canyon rather than get caught. Unlike his experience on "Blade Runner," however, Scott fought to retain his downer of an ending, but did make the compromise of freezing the car mid-air rather than show it crash into the depths below as shot. Meanwhile, Scott earned a nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement from the Directors Guild of America, and another for Best Director at the Academy Awards; his first bona fide award recognition.
Unfortunately for Scott, he followed a rousing success with yet another abysmal failure, this time directing "1492: The Conquest of Paradise" (1992), a lavish but ultimately doomed retelling of the famed discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu). Scott again displayed considerable visual flair, though he allowed himself to divert his focus to tangential storylines, while making the historic events rather dull and lifeless. Around 1994, he formed the production company Scott Free with his younger brother, director Tony Scott, best known for the monster hit "Top Gun" (1986). One of their first producing projects was Scott's next directing effort, "White Squall" (1996), a high-seas adventure about a group of young men struggling to survive after their boat capsizes. Once again, Scott's choice of material, which was mediocre at best, was questioned, while the film itself faired poorly at the box office. In another ill decision that would have sunk the careers of lesser talents, Scott helmed the unfortunate "G.I. Jane" (1997), a flawed look at a woman (Demi Moore) struggling to prove herself worthy of becoming a Navy SEAL. Though Moore's performance was compelling - amplified by the shaving of her head and extensive muscle-building - "G.I. Jane" fell far short of the greatness Scott had hoped to achieve.
Greatness was, however, just narrowly missed with Scott's next film, "Gladiator" (2000), a triumphant return to the fabled sword-and-sandal epics of Hollywood yore. Under the benign leadership of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), a fearsome, but respected Roman general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), has been privately declared the emperor's successor. But when the emperor's power-hungry son, Commodus (Joaquin Ph nix), hears about the betrayal, he kills his father, orders Maximus killed and grabs hold of the reigns of power. Maximus is captured and forced into slavery, where he trains as a gladiator and struggles to rise to the top of his game in order to confront Commodus on his own terms. Hailed by many critics as exceptional, "Gladiator" became a rare hit for Scott, who suffered for almost a decade without a financially successful film. It marked for the flailing director a sort of rebirth; one that suddenly sparked a flurry of new big budget projects that were previously unattainable, as well as a cordial working relationship with Russell Crowe - a rarity for both the typically difficult Scott and the typically difficult Crowe. Meanwhile, "Gladiator" earned 12 Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Director, and eventually took home five Oscars, including Best Picture.
Hot off the success of "Gladiator," Scott fell into directing "Hannibal" (2001), the long-awaited sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). After director Jonathan Demme backed out of the project, Scott stepped in to pick up the slack on this continuing tale of Dr. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), 10 years after his escape from federal custody. But Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), one of his past victims who managed to survive, uses Lector's old nemesis, Clarice Starling (a recast Julianne Moore), to lure the distinguished serial killer into a trap in order to exact revenge. Scott's mildly entertaining take failed miserably to live up to the tension and suspense of the original, making "Hannibal" pale by comparison. But that did not stop the movie from giving Scott his second huge hit in a row. Feeling himself on a roll, he directed the stunning "Black Hawk Down" (2002), a griping take on the true story of a Black Hawk helicopter getting shot down while on an exercise in Somalia during the United States' ill-fated humanitarian mission in 1993. Scott's talent for stark, stylistic visuals was on full display, giving the audience a feeling of actually being inside the maelstrom that claimed the lives of 18 soldiers and over 500 Somalis. Scott was honored with his third nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards.
With three successive hits, Scott was certainly on top of his game. But it was just a matter of time before he hit another bump, which materialized as "Matchstick Men" (2003), a quirky crime comedy about a neurotic con artist (an over-the-top Nicolas Cage) who gets consumed by fear and panic when his partner (Sam Rockwell) wants to pull a big job. Despite the appeal of a unique twist on an old genre film, Scott failed to take what might have been an amusing romp, to the level of true inspiration. In a rare sojourn into television, Scott and brother Tony - under the auspices of Scott Free - served as executive producers of "Numb3rs" (CBS, 2005-2010), a popular procedural about a talented FBI agent (Rob Morrow) who reluctantly uses his genius mathematician brother (David Krumholtz) to help the bureau solve cases, despite their strained relationship. Back behind the director's chair, Scott directed "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), a historical epic set during the 2nd and 3rd Crusades of the 12th century. Despite the occasional lapse in story logic, "Kingdom of Heaven," nonetheless, put on a fine display, with stunning battle sequences, while striking the right balance between grandeur and genuine character moments. The costly film, however, was struck down at the box office, amounting to financial disaster and pain for all involved, much like the Crusades themselves.
Having found a leading actor of high caliber with which to collaborate, it was surprising that Scott asked Crowe to make "A Good Year" (2006) for their sophomore effort together. A rather ordinary romantic comedy about a failing London banker (Crowe) who finds love with a beautiful Californian woman (Marion Cotilliard) after he inherits a winery, "A Good Year" caused many Scott fans to scratch their heads. Despite Crowe's star power, the film came and went without much fanfare, fizzling quickly at the box office. Scott returned to prime form on his third collaboration with Crowe, "American Gangster" (2007), a true-life telling of 1970s Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who gets nailed by Detective Richie Roberts, an honest cop (Crowe) trying to root out crooks on both sides of the law. "American Gangster" spent years in development, with Antoine Fuqua previously attached to direct. After Fuqua's prompt exit following "creative differences," Universal Pictures went through Brian De Palma and Terry George before settling on Scott to direct. As usual, Scott gave the film his trademark flourishing visual style, which worked well for the 1970s setting, and eventually earned himself a third Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Scott re-teamed with Crowe for the espionage thriller "Body of Lies" (2008), co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of a CIA operative used as a pawn by his supervisor (Crowe) in a high stakes game between Western and Arab intelligence agencies. Under the Scott Free banner, he executive-produced the medieval miniseries "The Pillars of the Earth" (Starz, 2010), based on the novel by Ken Follett, in addition to similar duties on the well-regarded drama series "The Good Wife" (CBS, 2009-16), starring Julianna Margulies. It was once more into the breach with Crowe in the title role of the legendary hero "Robin Hood" (2010), for a visually spectacular epic that, nonetheless, drew the ire of many critics for its historical inaccuracies and the narrative liberties taken with such an iconic tale. In 2011, Scott began production on the highly-anticipated "Prometheus" (2012). A science-fiction thriller initially intended as a prequel to "Alien," the director later insisted that while it shared a certain amount of that seminal film's creative DNA, "Prometheus" would very much be its own movie, tackling "unique, large and provocative" new ideas. Following the global commercial success of "Prometheus," Scott was struck by tragic news when brother, Tony, apparently committed suicide on Aug. 19, 2012 by leaping to his death from a suspension bridge in San Pedro, CA. Tony's actions were allegedly motivated by a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Scott remained quiet in the ensuing days following the news, with no immediate word on how his brother's death would affect their joint production company.
Returning to work, Scott dedicated the offbeat crime thriller "The Counselor" (2013) to his late brother; the film was penned by novelist Cormac McCarthy. Going in an entirely different direction, Scott next helmed "Exodus: Gods and Monsters" (2014), a straightforward Biblical epic enlivened by state of the art CGI work. This was followed by "The Martian" (2015), a comic-tinged science fiction action film based on the bestseller by Andy Weir.By Shawn Dwyer